RICK METCALF: Fresh footprints in unspoiled White Canyon - Tucson Local Media: Sports

RICK METCALF: Fresh footprints in unspoiled White Canyon

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Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 11:00 pm

With the demands of today’s world, development continues to expand, continually encroaching into and encircling pristine wilderness areas.

For those who love to experience these environments, finding them in Southern Arizona, though challenging, can be extremely rewarding.

White Canyon Wilderness, off highway 177 between Superior and Kearney, offers just this type of adventure.

Deep open-pit copper mines are passed on the approach to Battle Axe Road, between milepost 158 and 159, a primitive road providing access to this canyon.

Winding and descending westward toward Copper Butte, care must be taken on this lightly maintained road.

Near the base of Copper Butte, the road becomes private, with a four-wheel drive road cutting off to the right.

The route quickly becomes more of a wash than roadway. Departing this path to the left near an abandoned reservoir, a small creek bed leads toward Walnut Canyon.

Beyond this point, the vistas open as the drainage becomes much larger, with a strikingly beautiful bluff dominating the western skyline.

A peaceful, serene hike through this seldom-visited canyon is highlighted by the fact that zero miles of maintained trails exist, with travel primarily achieved down the middle of several washes.

With a heavy monsoon storm having fallen the night before, all evidence of other hikers has been erased. Only fresh wildlife tracks mark the wet sand.

The streambed — carpeted with a gloriously colored mixture of pebbles and rocks, not surprising given the area includes Mineral Mountain — is cool and comfortable in the early morning, as the moisture evaporates.

A small side canyon east of a massive cliff on the north side of Walnut Canyon invites exploration, an adventure that soon ends as the canyon narrows into a steep slot, where only strong, experienced climbers should continue.

Just west of the cliff, the area’s namesake, White Canyon, joins from the north.

A much larger canyon, the creek bed is surprisingly dry. Though sharing basically the same watershed, the previous day’s rainstorm has only washed through Walnut Canyon.

Taking this canyon to the north, hikers will pass through open areas as well as a narrow, steep-walled canyon before exiting the wilderness area, after about three miles.

Continuing the adventure in Walnut Canyon, the heading has shifted to the south, inviting adventurers into a section dominated by cottonwood trees.

Invitation accepted!

Pushed upward, the creek now flows on the surface, tumbling over low falls, offering a comforting, familiar sound.

The canyon widens quickly, eventually descending to a confluence with the Gila River, another three miles ahead. Having hiked roughly that distance and dropping barely 600 feet in elevation, cool morning temperatures have given way to those now over 90 degrees.

With shade scarce, an easy decision to return to the shadows of the east/west direction of the upper canyon is quickly made.

Enormous thunderhead clouds are forming to the east, an ominous sight given the evidence of the previous day’s canyon-scouring flood—another reason to bring the adventure to a close.

At nearly noon, the sandy creek bottom has dried considerably, with the enjoyment of the cool, air conditioning effect of the morning now feeling more like a sauna.

Tracking progress with a GPS device, location of the small wash leading to the waiting vehicle is easily achieved.

Covering just over six miles in slightly over four hours, this outing — though rigorous — has not been overwhelming.

The perfect highlight of the adventure is knowing the person who has made all the human tracks in Walnut Canyon on this day.

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